Escape from Santiago

Now we had a working Steve we could finally make our planned trip north, only 6  weeks later than planned. This was going to have to be an express trip round Bolivia and Peru as the snow had started falling, Chillan had recieved a meter of the white stuff the week we left. A bit of Lonely Planet consulting and a few recommendations saw us head to La Serena, the Lonely Planet paints a picture of a quaint seaside town with old colonial buildings. What you get is a big city by the sea and perhaps the worlds most expensive, and not very good, toasted sandwich! Fortunately one of the Sprinter drivers from the mechanics’ yard had recommended going to the nearby Elqui Valley, home to many Pisco distillaries, observatories and hippies. Elqui did indeed live up to its reputation, being beautiful and the first time we’d seen green landscapes in a long time. Our visit to one of the observatories was also really worth while giving very clear view of Uranus and Saturn’s rings!

Close up of the moon through a reflecting telescope.
Close up of the moon through a reflecting telescope.

It was then a long drive to get to San Pedro De Atacama, a small town in the Atacama desert surrounded by salt flats and valconoes. although we couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to go and see penguins at the Humbolt Pinguino Reserve. This was a 160km detour on dirt roads only to find the jetty were the tour boats leave from deserted with just a few pelicans for company, maybe the Loney Planet forgot to mention penguins nesting might be seasonal.

Pelicans mutteing about stupid tourists turning up at the wrong ime of year.
Pelicans mutteing about stupid tourists turning up at the wrong ime of year.

Oh well back to heading north, and there was still a lot of heading north to do. The amount of nothing in the north of Chile is quite impressive, there is just mile after mile of arrid stoney landscape. The desolate plains of the Atacama seem to support little or no life and are only punctuted by occasional small settlement.

Driving through the desolate north
Driving through the desolate north

On the way to San Pedro we were keen to drive through the salt flats, rather than via the normal highway route. The National Geographic map showed a minor road crossing the Salt flats although the GPS was not so sure it existed, it took some effort to find the right turn.  However, find it we did even though according to the GPS we had driven off the edge of the  world.  Old school:1, technology:0.  You just can’t beat a paper map!  All the same, the road wasn’t the greatest so we elected to stop in the middle of the salt flats for the night and negotiate the rest of the way with the benefit of daylight – van living is just ace!

Steve on the salt flats at night (a near full moon and strange camera effects at work)
Steve on the salt flats at night (a near full moon and strange camera effects at work)

However the van toilet (a small folding shovel with pick axe) was not woking so well on the vast flat plain of the salt flats with its impenitrable crust!

There was a small detour to the salt water lagoons where the flamingos feed on the shrimp that live there. It was just the most gorgeous place without a breath of wind to stir the mirror surface of the water, and due to the request for silence at the entrance it made it one of the most tranquil, peaceful places we have ever visited.  Arriving with the music blaring probably wasn’t appreciated, in retrospect…

Flamongos Feeding.
Flamongos Feeding.

We arrived in San Pedro in good time to get to Valle de La Luna in time for sunset.  We booked a tour to the El Tatio geysers as you need to make a 4am start if you want to catch them at sunrise, the best time to visit as the steam hangs in the cool air.

Barbara in the early morning sun at El Tatio
Barbara in the early morning sun at El Tatio

The Geysers really are an amazing sight. It is just a shame you have to share the experience with so many other people. After seeing the geysers we were taken off to some hot springs, these were the best I have ever been to as it was really a hot stream in the mountains that you could luxuriate in, awesome!

Relaxing in the hot springs at Cerro Blanco
Relaxing in the hot springs at Cerro Blanco

We had got the touristy stuff out the way in fairly short order so we could then get out climbing at Socaire!

Crossing Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is one of those places in my mind that has some kind of mythical status. One of those places you’ve heard about and sound very exotic whilst having a bit of a silly name, kind of like Timbuktu. Anyway it is an amazing place high up in the Andes at 3800m and the ruta 2 in Bolivia has to breach its blue waters somehow….

Steve Gets Sick

Off to the mechanics we went with a sick sounding Steve. A quick drive round the block confirmed what I had feared, the dual mass fly-wheel (an expensive part between the engine and the clutch) probably needed replacing. So the van was to go back on the Monday so they could remove the gearbox and have a look. I arrived Monday first thing (10.30am for chilean mechanics) and I was the first there, yes that was before any mechanics! It was not long before there were three or four other Mercedes Sprinters and their drivers also waiting, at least this did seem to be the best place to get a Sprinter fixed. Once Mauricio arrived at about 1pm he said it would be the next day before they would be able to take a look, this became Wednesday. On the Wednesday there was more bad news as Mauricio announced that he was quite worried about the engine as it was making an unfriendly noise characteristic of badly worn crankshaft carrier bearings. This was a bit of a shock as it could mean a full engine rebuild and if not done it could mean a piston connecting rod through the side of the engine. However we agreed that they would fix the fly-wheel first then we would have another listen to the engine after that. It was Thursday before they finally got the gearbox out, it turned out the DMF rattling around had damaged the clutch as well. So off I went to get the required parts from the Mercedes dealership as the mechanics worked on a labour only basis. Carrying a new clutch assembly and DMF around town and on the Metro is pretty hard work, but the parts were delivered and they could rebuild Steve. He was ready on the Friday and Mauricio said I should have a listen to the engine and decide what to do about that problem. I turned the key and without the other noise from the flywheel the engine sounded pretty bad, there was no choice but to get the engine inspected internally. I took the van away so we could go for a trip climbing as they could not start the work till the Monday.

Monday came and went as did Tuesday, everyday Mauricio said Mañana. Eventually Steve went in one week later even then nothing much happened until the end of that week despite regular calls and visits. It seemed the regulars got priority… At least there was plenty of climbing to be done in Cajon Del Maipo!

Eventually they had the engine out and the carrier bearings removed, they were totalled. It appeared this had been caused because the previous owner had fitted a non Mercedes oil filter, which, combined with a missing o-ring on the oil pump had caused low oil pressure in the engine. The head needed to come off and pistons come out so they could be inspected. The number 4 piston and cylinder were also damaged. This meant  the cylinders and crankshaft needed reconditioning and the engine rebuilt with new wearparts and seals. At least the mechanics were good and honest even if not terribly time conscious!

After many more phone calls and visits nothing much had happened for a further week. This came to a head somewhat when I found Alfredo, the mechanic supposed to be building my engine, asleep one day then playing patience on the computer the next! I managed to count to ten…. and then asked if I could help with the work. Alfredo agreed so I was to turn up to work on the Monday for my new job as an apprentice mechanic!

I arrived on the Monday to find all the pistons in the block, progress at last! After some false starts I got my instructions…. wash all the engine parts in the engine wash. My day was spent washing and scrubbing away and lending the odd hand to mount engine parts. By the end of day one we had a mostly built engine.

Alfredo (left) and Mauricio (right) with a mostly built engine.
Alfredo (left) and Mauricio (right) with a mostly built engine.

It took the rest of the week to finish building the engine and get it mounted back in Steve as we kept finding little modifications the previous owner had made so there were a few trips out to pick up parts. However by the Friday the engine was running back in Steve. There were some other jobs to complete on the van to get him ready for the trip, but by the Saturday we were done and I was driving a way in a fixed and much better sounding Steve.

At last our travels could begin!

Steve for Sale

For sale 2005 Mercedes Sprinter 308 2.2 CDI with full camper conversion. Mercedes Sprinters are the workhorse van for most tour bus operators in Chile, Peru and Argentina because of their reliability and economy. The van is amazingly efficient, it’s a 2.2l CDI which can eke out up to 1000kms on a 75l tank of diesel when cruising highways. In Chile you’ll pay~50,000 Chilean Pesos (~$100 or £50) to fill it up.

The van also has good ground clearance ~8inches, and can cope with the majority of unmade roads you’ll find in Chile, Bolivia etc. just fine. It was bought and converted in Chile, and is perfect for two people to travel and live in in comfort (even luxury – it’s got a wine rack and wood burning stove after all!)  It was designed

and built for two people ski touring, although could easily be used as a base for a bigger group with the use of tents etc. The van would also be a great base for kyaking or surfing as it is well insulated, has lots of storage and the wood stove gets lots of wet kit dry quickly.
The kit list is as follows:
– Double burner gas hob with 6.5kg gas bottle.

– 70l of water storage- Electric water pumps providing running water for the sink and cold outdoor shower.

– Ample seating in the back can comfortably accomodate 5 people (6 at a squeeze) for great van socials!- Lots of storage inside that swallows all our climbing and ski gear.

– Skylight/roof vent.- Seating coverts into a double bed.- Sink with tap fed by electric pump and external drain.

– 100Ah liesure battery to supply power to lighting and pumps and provide start assist to the starter battery if required.- Split charging relay for liesure battery

– Solar panel and solar charge controller- LED lighting- Woodburning stove to keep you cosy and warm in the coldest of places.

– Fully equiped kitchen/dining set ( pots, pans, utensils, plates, knives, forks etc.)- Smoke and CO alarm

– 3 bottle wine/whisky/pisco rack.

– A bunch of storage boxes and tupperwares to keep everything organised and orderly.

– Radio/CD player with jack for MP3 player- Small 12v  to 220v AC 150W inverter for charging electronic devices.

– Roofrack

– 12v air compressor/tyre pump

– Second spare wheel

– 20l jerry can

-Fire extiguisher

– Smal folding shovel (the toilet or for digging the van out if you get it stuck somewhere!)

– Warning triangle

– Spare fuel filter

– Spare oil filter

– Selection of spare bulbs and fuses

– Feather duvet, pillows and bed linen

Basically the van has everything you need for your South American adventure so all you have to do is rock up, do the deal and take the keys!
The van is an ex-ambulance and has 165,000 kilometers on the clock currently. We have had a lot of work done on the mechanics to make sure the van was reliable for our trip so should run trouble free for a good few tens of thousands of miles yet. We have had the following work done:
– Clutch and dual mass flywheel replaced at 155,000km, only Mercedes Original parts used, all receipts will be provided.

– Full engine rebuild at 155,000km, only Mercedes Original parts used, all reciepts will be provided.

– New Maxxis Bravo AT tyres fitted at 162,000km

– gearbox and diff. oil changed at 155,000km

– Drive shaft centre bearing replaced at 163,000km
LEGAL DOCUMENTATIONThe revision tecnica (Chilean MOT or roadworthiness test) is valid until August 2015Vehicle insurance  is valid until 31st March 2015Permision de circulacion is valid until the end of August 2015
The bodywork is well used, but sound.
The van will be available in the first or second week of September (expect about another 20,000kms on the clock i.e. 185,000kms total) in Santiago Chile. Please get in touch for more details.
We are looking for 7.5m chilean pesos for him including all the kit listed above. We will be advertising the van for sale on Chilean car sites too as Sprinters in good working order are highly sought after vehicles in Chile, when we were trying to buy the van we found that good vans would sell in 24-48 hours. Although our preference is to sell to other travellers so Steve can continue his adventures after we have left South America!

Steve the $6m van!
Steve from the back.
Steve from the back.
Bed out inside the van, breakfast in bed anyone?!
Bed out inside the van, breakfast in bed anyone?!
Van looking nice and cosy with wine and dinner on the go!
Van looking nice and cosy with wine and dinner on the go!


The wodd burning stove in action. Cosy and warm despite negetive temperatures outside. He'll make you want to park in cold places!
The wood burning stove in action. Cosy and warm despite negetive temperatures outside. He’ll make you want to park in cold places!
Loads of seating for you and guests! Evene better there's storage under all the bench seats.
Loads of seating for you and guests!
The Kitchen Unit, this thing can produce some awesome dinners...
The Kitchen Unit, this thing can produce some awesome dinners…
...and what's inside? Upstairs lots of food storage, downstairs pots, pans, utensils, plates etc. Oh don't forget the wine rack!
…and what’s inside? Upstairs lots of food storage, downstairs pots, pans, utensils, plates etc. Oh don’t forget the wine rack!
The Complete Package
The Complete Package


Shakedown Run

Time had come for the official shake down run for the van,  and whilst we didn’t have every thing finished we would get an idea as to what worked and what didn’t. The outing we had chosen had some pretty rough roads and the place we were stopping was remote. We also planned on trying to climb Cerro Arenas, a 4,800m mountain that looked like an awesome ridge from the valley that we had been to for Cine en la Montaña a week before.

Barbara had got the maps from the military map shop in Santiago – or so we thought until discovering we did not have the sheet we needed, D’oh. Oh well we had a GPS and it was a ridge so we thought we would have a look anyways . At least it would be a nice trek around the mountains and it would be pretty hard to get lost as the approach was direct up a valley and the ridge was well defined.

Cerro Arenas ridge from the approach.
Cerro Arenas ridge from the approach.

We didn’t end up making the earliest of starts, but the plan was to bivvy on the ridge so it seemed like we would still be ok for time. Once we had headed up the mountain the relatively easy access to the ridge turned out not to be that straight forward. We were feeling the effects of the altitude , having climbed from 2,300m to 3,600m in a few hours so we decided to head  down a bit to a good bivvy spot near running water. Barbara sorted the bivvy while I had a reccy further on up to try to figure out the way on to the ridge proper. I thought I had found a way, but it would take us a good couple of hours to get to the ascent on to the ridge.

Barbara with the bivvy all set up.
Barbara with the bivvy all set up.

We planned on a 3am start, until we found both our head torches were low on batteries and we had managed to leave the spare batteries behind. We thought we might be  ok starting by moonlight as it had been pretty bright the night before. The alarm went off at 3am and it was actually really dark as the moon had not risen above the surrounding mountains and it was so cold we had frost on the inside of the bivvy bags, so like keen mountaineers we decided to wait for more light and conserve our head torch batteries.

Sunrise, still at the bivvy!
Sunrise, still at the bivvy!

Once we did get started we decided to leave all the bivvy gear and just work to a 1pm turn around time and see where we got to. We got quite a long way, but still not on the ridge. From this point we could see Arenas was in fact part of a big horseshoe ridge and we were at the end furthest away from the Arenas summit.  Maps are really useful things! We had some lunch and started heading back down having had a good hike around the mountains, but still wanting to come back to climb Arenas.

At least it had been a good acclimatisation trek and we had got to test out some of the new bits of gear we had got for the trip. Everything passed the test apart from the button lock on my new Black Diamond headtorch, which still allows the torch to switch on in your sack leaving you with flat batteries. The only other failure was Barbaras knee which started to give her some real gyp on the way down, I ended up carrying her pack fo the last bit before we got back to Steve who was waiting with plenty of wood for a fire and some wine!

The shakedown run had been a success in that we had found some small things that needed changing to make the van more livable. However during our trip back to Santiago the van was not sounding or feeling so great, the vibration that it had when we bought it had worsened somewhat. I guess that is what shakedowns are for, basically to try and break the thing you just built, it seemed we may have succeeded.

When we arrived back at La Chimba Enzo from Pachamama by Bus was there and commented on the not so healthy noise. This was a bit worrying as he had had a bit of a look round the van a couple of weeks before and thought he was all good. Which had been reassuring as he runs a fleet of sprinters that have covered over 3m kilometres.

We had been planning to head north in the next few days, but we thought we should get the van looked at and Enzo pointed us in the direction of some good Sprinter mechanics.